Nov 22, 2022 - News

Powder Springs' downtown dreams

A piece of playground climbing equipment shaped like a cube and a stage in a downtown square

Photo: Thomas Wheatley/Axios

Business has been "up and down" for Stacey West since she opened Suga's Cheese Shoppe & Cafe, a restaurant known for its pimento cheeses, in December 2021 in downtown Powder Springs.

  • But she has reason to believe good days are ahead.

What's happening: The city of about 17,000 people has a plan to attract people to its central business district through new developments, and West hopes it will give her restaurant and other small businesses the boost they need to survive in the grouchy post-pandemic economy.

  • "I love it because it's bringing new life to this area," West told Axios. "It puts us on the map as a place to go that's quaint."

Why it matters: As metro Atlanta's population experiences steady growth, suburban cities like Powder Springs are exploring ways to transform sleepy downtowns into destinations.

Details: The plan, which Powder Springs has been working on since early 2021, involves the city purchasing property and entering into public-private partnerships with developers who would build mixed-use options like retail shops, offices and residential uses.

  • Ground broke earlier this year on a project to build 226 homes and apartments, set to open in late 2023 or early 2024, on property that once housed City Hall and other government buildings.
  • Powder Springs plans to rebuild a new City Hall that would open by mid-2024.

What they're saying: Marsellas Williams, the city's economic development director, told Axios that the city envisions having more density that could support new and existing downtown businesses.

  • "We're trying to create in Powder Springs not only a destination for tourists to come," he said, "but also for residents who live in the city who want to see more businesses thrive."

Get oriented: Powder Springs is about 20 miles west of Atlanta. It's mostly a residential city, with several small businesses housed in brick buildings along Marietta Street, downtown’s main thoroughfare.

  • Perhaps the best-known business is The Book Worm, an independent bookstore that's been open since October 2005.
  • The city's main attraction is Springs Thurman Park, which includes green space and an amphitheater where it hosts most of its events.
  • The Silver Comet Trail runs just north of downtown.
  • The city recently nabbed its first brewery, Skint Chestnut, which opened in the summer.

The other side: Of course, people have raised concerns — mostly on social media — about the planned apartments.

  • Some detractors commented on a city Facebook post that Powder Springs officials were destroying the small-town charm and that more traffic will burden city streets.
  • "I don't even recognize my hometown anymore, much less know anyone except family that lives there," one woman wrote.

Zoom out: Suburban communities across the country, which for a generation were built around mega shopping malls, now focus on reinventing downtowns and strip malls, commercial corridors, office parks and other "automobile-oriented" properties, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor and director of the Master of Science in Urban Design program at Georgia Tech.

  • Dunham-Jones told Axios that when malls opened in these cities, they took business from downtown mom-and-pop stores and became community gathering spots.
  • Now suburban cities want people to gather around new downtown mixed-use developments instead of the food court.
  • "They're really trying to beef up their downtowns because they see that's really what provides that great sense of place," she said. "Malls aren't the new shiny thing anymore."

Yes, and: Mayor Al Thurman told Axios that when he was first elected to the City Council, consultants said the city needed more "people to live in the downtown in order for those local businesses to survive."

  • “We're trying to…create the atmosphere for live, work and play where people don't have to go to Hiram or the East-West Connector to go to a restaurant," he said. "We're trying to create that atmosphere where they can have it right here in Powder Springs."

Jake Hardy, co-owner of Rooted Trading Co., which sells local, handmade items, outdoor gear and rents bicycles, told Axios he's excited to see the changes.

  • "We've had a couple of great staples that have been here for 20 years or so," Hardy said, "but as a whole, we definitely need people."

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